One of the first posts in this blog dealt with the deaths of Jesse Belvin, Jo Ann Belvin (Jesse’s wife and manager), and the driver of their car, Charles Ford, who were involved in a two-car collision near Hope, Arkansas, on February 6, 1960. Jesse and Charles died in the collision, and Jo Ann succumbed to her injuries the following week. The Belvins were friends of Jackie Wilson, who appeared on the same concert bill with Jesse the night before in Little Rock and figured in the various accounts of the concert and its aftermath.
Theories on the Internet. Many people believed that the Belvin vehicle had been sabotaged, and at the time I started this blog, I knew that a variety of stories about the concert itself, the Belvins, and Jackie Wilson were available on the Internet.
A popular version of what happened that night in Little Rock had Jackie Wilson refusing to perform to a white audience, leading to everyone on the bill being run out of town ahead of an angry mob. In this version, while the performers argued with police and promoters inside the venue, racists outside the venue tampered with cars belonging to Arthur Prysock, Jesse Belvin, and Jackie Wilson, causing the Belvin crash as well as damage to the Prysock and Wilson vehicles.
A second version of the Little Rock concert and subsequent auto crash was advanced by a man named Eric Lenaburg, who described himself as an investigative journalist who had been working on the story on and off for decades. This man insisted that there was foul play, that Jesse Belvin’s life had been threatened during the week running up to the concert, and that the concert was the first integrated-audience concert in Little Rock history.
The Etta James account. As I began to follow up on these stories, I had in mind a passage from the Etta James as-told-to biography, Rage to Survive.* Jackie and Etta were friends, and he is mentioned frequently in the book, often coming to Etta’s rescue when she was in difficult straits. Etta claims to have gotten her information on the automobile crash from Jackie, meaning she would have been recalling something from at least two decades earlier. She says that the driver of Jesse Belvin’s car caused the accident by being asleep at the wheel. One paragraph of her account described the accident itself:
Musicians in the car behind Jesse’s told me of this horrible glow they saw up ahead, this red glare that lit the sky where the two cars collided. Charles was killed instantly. And so was Jesse. Jesse had his arm around Jo Ann–they were both asleep–but was so quick that on impact he grabbed her head and shoved it beneath the car radio. The collision was so powerful that when they opened the door they saw that Jesse Belvin, whose head had gone through the windshield, was nearly decapitated. His nose was separated from his mouth. His clothes were in shreds, like a scarecrow. They rushed the bodies to a hospital. Knowing Charles and Jesse were dead, their main concern was for Jo Ann. But the hospital, run by white doctors, wanted to know who was paying. No one had enough money. Jo Ann was left unattended with a crushed pelvis, a crushed chest, a broken arm. She was left in a coma until they could reach Jackie Wilson in Dallas. Jackie drove back to Arkansas to pay the doctors. It turned out that the town, Hope, Arkansas, birthplace of Bill Clinton, was also the birthplace of Jesse Belvin. Jesse died three miles from the house where he was born.
The part of the story about Jackie having to go back to pay the hospital had a familiar ring. There are many stories about hospitals in the South in that era refusing to treat African Americans, and no doubt some of them are true. Unfortunately, many of these stories are not true. For example, the family of Dr. Charles Drew, the brilliant surgeon who developed the system for plasma donation and transfusion, spent years refuting the rumor that Drew was refused medical treatment after an automobile accident in North Carolina in 1950. Recognizing this meme, I was skeptical on that point.
Another paragraph from this book, one describing the funeral, also did not seem quite likely. According to Tony Douglas, Jackie did not attend his own father’s funeral nor his son’s funeral. If he had an aversion to funerals, would he have been likely to sing at Jesse and Jo Ann’s?
I traveled from Chicago to the funeral in Los Angeles. It took them three days to sew Jesse together. The open caskets were devastating. To see two beautiful young people dead, a man and a wife, head to head in matching caskets—man, that was more than we could take. None of us could contain ourselves. Jackie Wilson sang, but he was so broke up he could barely make a sound. We all know Jesse was the next superstar. He’d just gotten the big break with RCA, just gotten started, just . . .
Each account had points I that did not seem likely. In the “riot” account, I could not see why Jackie Wilson would refuse to play for the white audience. African American entertainers played for white audiences routinely. Not playing would mean no one would get paid. Lenaburg’s version was interesting, but it rested entirely on his investigative skills, and I could find no other work by this reporter.
When I started writing the blog a year and a half ago, I hoped readers might be able to help me sort out the facts about these events. I did find help and some answers, but one person tried to lead me to false conclusions. At this point I am still looking for information, but I have learned a great deal with the help of a university librarian, Jesse Belvin Jr, and some of his family members. The next few posts will cover what I have learned.
* James, Etta, and David Ritz. Rage to Survive: The Etta James Story. DaCapo Press, 1998